Do true-crime podcasts help real investigations?

What happens when internet sleuths take a criminal investigation into their own hands?

Sarah Turney isn’t the ordinary true-crime podcaster.

Aside from analyzing over 3,000 pages worth of investigation and court documents, Turney had something more to bring to the table — a personal connection to the crime.

When Sarah Turney’s sister, Alissa, went missing in 2001, it left a lot of unanswered questions for over 20 years.

All that was left at the time was a note in Alissa’s bedroom that read: “Dad and Sarah, When you dropped me off at school today, I decided I really am going to California. Sarah, you said you really wanted me gone — now you have it. Dad, I took $300 from you. That’s why I saved my money.”

Turney decided to tell the full story of her missing sister through her own podcast called “Voices for Justice.”

“Ultimately, I just wanted to help her case,” she said in an email.

She successfully created a media campaign that used social media and her podcast to pressure the police to arrest her father for the murder of her sister.

And now, Turney has a new podcast, “Disappearances,” a Spotify Original with Parcast, where she narrates other missing-person cold cases.

Her story raises an important question: Do true-crime podcasts actually help in real-life investigations? Or can they do more harm? The true-crime genre is the most popular type of podcast after all, with a huge consumer base and a substantial amount of influence. In fact, 4 out of 10 podcasts on the top 10 American Spotify charts are of the true-crime genre, according to a study by Line Seistrup Clausen and Stine Ausum Sikjær.

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Pop culture mirrors this intense obsession with true-crime podcasts through many mediums, like the TV show “Only Murders In The Building.” Similar to Sarah Turney’s case, the trio in the show — Martin Short as Oliver, Steve Martin as Charles, Selena Gomez as Mabel — has a personal connection to the crime. They create a podcast to dive deeper into the mystery behind the death of a resident in their building. Their podcast, like Turney’s, also becomes popular online, inviting fans to make their own conclusions.

There is a reasonable case to be made for this genre — it allows people to feel as if they are in a nice, secure home while there is a storm outside and that’s the thrill of it.

The rise of true crime

This obsession isn’t new either. Detailed accounts of murders can easily be traced back to 19th-century newspapers, inviting readers to evaluate the evidence themselves, followed by magazines like True Detective later on. The world of television is also saturated with true crime but this genre broke into podcasting in 2014 with “Serial,” a podcast that investigated various cases like the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee.

“Serial” — hosted by Sarah Koenig — was an instant hit, paving the path for other podcasts like “Dr. Death,” “S-Town” and “Dirty John.”

“True crime also works well for a podcasting format — people can cover one crime per episode, or dig deeper into a case over a series of episodes,” said Amanda Vicary, associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Like Turney said, more often than not, all a cold case needs is one final puzzle piece. In the case of the podcast “The Murder Squad,” the hosts, a retired cold case investigator and an investigative journalist, helped convince a listener to use GEDmatch, which is a global DNA database. The newly inserted DNA matched with that of the killer on the system, relaunching this investigation.

The dark side of true crime

But opening the door wide open for public scrutiny and interference does come at a price. Although the most successful podcasts are investigated by professional journalists, published under media companies that follow a code of ethics, “amateur sleuths don’t necessarily hold themselves to the same professional and ethical standards or have the same training,” explained Lili Paquet, writing studies professor at the University of New England and author of “Crime Fiction from a Professional Eye.”

Take for instance what happened when young Gabby Petito went missing after visiting Utah last year. The internet sleuths were on to every possible theory by analyzing every social media post made by Petito and immersing themselves in trail maps of the Grand Teton National Park — the last place she was seen before she disappeared. Some even believed that her last text message which contained the word “Stan” was a code word for danger.

Was it her boyfriend who killed her? Was she a victim of domestic abuse? Did she commit suicide?

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“There is a danger that podcasters and online sleuths could be interested for entertainment’s sake more than to help victims feel a sense of justice,” said Paquet. “It can be hard to remember, because sometimes the narrative is so enthralling, that the people involved are real and often still alive.”

In her analysis of podcasts “Trace” and “The Teacher’s Pet,” she found that the public attention became very distressing for victim families.

Turney, who is a podcaster but also a victim, has experienced the attack of internet sleuths firsthand. A man once made around 100 videos about her and her sister, saying terrible things to get the “truth” out there.

Subsequently, the man concluded that Turney had killed her own sister when she was 12 years old. He accused Turney of covering up the murder, unleashing his 250,000 followers onto her.

“It was horrendous and traumatic. It’s something I will never forget that I imagine he and his audience don’t even think twice about,” she said.

Drawing the line?

But where to draw that line is a hard question to answer, said Turney. The country allows public access to information and the right to express opinions — So, who should be drawing that line?

Cues from law enforcement are always helpful in certain situations, like in the case of the murders of Abigail Williams and Liberty German in Delphi, Indiana, where the police asked the public to stop sharing side-by-side pictures of the sketch and of potential suspects.

“It’s a lot easier for those connected to a case to refer to the instructions given by law enforcement instead of just begging the public and creators to do what you believe is best for the case,” Turney said.

Dave Cawley, the writer, host and producer of KSL’s “Cold” podcast, agreed that public speculation can taint investigations and create feedback loops where people are repeating hearsay.

In the first season of the “Cold” podcast, Cawley, a long-time journalist, dug into the disappearance of Susan Cox Powell in Utah’s West Desert in 2009. Many thought that Josh Powell, her husband, may have dumped the body in a mine in that area. The police looked into those tips but ultimately concluded that they could not find a body.

The same information continued to be provided to the police decades later. In some cases, the earlier accounts did not even match up with recent ones.

Both Turney and Cawley think that intention matters. The media often gets things wrong but the end goal should be to help the cases get solved. When larger ambitions, like click-through rates and ratings, need appeasing, these values can be forgotten. This is when victims become footnotes in their own case. 

Turney remembers being interviewed by media outlets and constantly being asked to explain her sister’s “rebellion.”

“If we treated every teenager that goes missing as ‘rebellious’ for ... completely normal experimentation that a high percentage of teenagers engage in, we wouldn’t recover nearly as many as we do,” she said, adding that if her sister was viewed as “the amazingly strong and caring young woman she really was,” then more people would have paid attention sooner.

Why true-crime matters

Kevin Balfe, founder of Crime Con, a convention for true-crime lovers, has spent time with investigators and experts in the field of true crime, explained the reason crowdsourcing became evident in solving these crimes: Usually when an investigation starts, law enforcement talks to everyone who may know something, but then time passes. Now, it's 12 years later. The same married and madly-in-love couple is divorced. The worker from the company he planned to retire at was fired.

“When something comes back in the news unexpectedly, it can create a good atmosphere where someone might say something that they wouldn’t have years ago,” he added.

With all the troubling experiences Turney has gone through, she still believes that one share, one click, one phone call can change the case forever.

The true-crime genre educates the masses about the types of abusive behaviors across the board, allowing them to advocate for victims and themselves.

Even on her podcast, “Voices for Justice,” Turney often says, “don’t just listen to their stories, be a voice for them.”